TAMPA — Richard Lilliston used to be admired. Now, old friends shun him.
In the years when he ran a Hillsborough County agency for the mentally disabled, he enjoyed a reputation as a man who dedicated his life to serving those less fortunate.
But on Monday, a federal judge sent the 70-year-old Lilliston to prison for the longest term possible — five years — for taking advantage of those very same people and stealing from the government in the process.
"Everything I've learned about you tells me that you are a good person at your core," U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore told Lilliston.
The judge alluded to some of Lilliston's accomplishments. But, like others in the courtroom, he couldn't overlook that vulnerable adults had been victimized.
"It's not the money," he said, "but from whom it was taken."
The remarkable downfall of Lilliston, who once rubbed elbows with Tampa's elite as the chief executive of the Hillsborough Association for Retarded Citizens, came after he was accused of diverting Social Security payments intended for the mentally disabled clients in his care.
In April, a jury convicted him of conspiring to defraud the Social Security Administration.
"As CEO, I take full responsibility for the fraud that took place during my tenure," Lilliston said. "I was the boss and the buck stopped with me. I'm truly sorry and I hope they can forgive me."
Lilliston led HARC, known in its later years as the Hillsborough Achievement and Resource Center, from 1997 to 2011. It operated group homes and community programs for the mentally disabled.
In court, Lilliston highlighted his successes, turning the program from a collection of poorly maintained buildings to vibrant group homes with various programs for the disabled.
HARC was entrusted to handle the Social Security payments of its clients, many of whom had profound mental impairments. Each client received payments into individual accounts. HARC had to report to the government what was spent on clients. If a client's savings exceeded $2,000, he or she would risk losing need-based Supplemental Security Income.
To prevent that from happening, HARC took the excess money and put it into an endowment account. As the agency found itself dogged by financial difficulties, it used the account to pay operating expenses.
HARC's chief accountant, Frank Pannullo, engineered the scheme. At Lilliston's trial in April, he admitted he and his staff falsified numbers on a spreadsheet meant to keep track of each client's contribution to the fund.
The stolen money also boosted the salaries of Pannullo and Lilliston and provided both with an $1,800-a-month car allowance, according to prosecutors.
In 2009, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities questioned HARC's use of the endowment fund. After that, Lilliston instructed Pannullo and another employee, Marsha Weisse, to get clients to sign "pooled trust agreements." The documents, according to court testimony, were an effort to make the financial arrangement appear legal.
Family members of some of the people who signed those documents packed the courtroom Monday afternoon. They told Whittemore how their relatives would have no capacity to understand their own finances or what they were signing.
Patricia Hurlbrink, whose son, Bruce, was a HARC client, addressed Lilliston directly.
"Richard," she said, "How could you not protect these people who depended on you?"
Defense attorney Mark Rodriguez pointed to Lilliston's age as a reason for leniency.
His wife, Debora, who has health problems, told the judge she didn't know how she would get by without Lilliston's help.
"I'm not taking your husband away," Whittemore said. "He took himself away."
Pannullo pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. He was the star witness at Lilliston's trial. Weisse, who was the program's controller and later chief financial officer after Pannullo's 2011 departure, pleaded guilty to related charges, as did former client finance manager Sandra Shepherd. Each received five years of probation.
In addition to prison, Whittemore ordered Lilliston to pay $657,635 in joint restitution with Pannullo, Weisse and Shepherd.
"I wish the worst for him," said Beverly Wall, whose sister, Linda Loveridge, was a HARC client. "What he did was horrific."
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.